INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - (May 27, 2012) – The National Guard Panther Racing team’s run of four consecutive runner-up finishes in the Indianapolis 500 came to a conclusion Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where JR Hildebrand had an eventful day en route to a 14th-place finish. Hildebrand, last year’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, reached as high as fifth place during the 200-lap event but a series of incidents kept the team from threatening for the lead.
The team’s misfortune started on its first pit stop of the race on Lap 15, when EJ Viso and Dario Franchitti had contact on pit lane, causing Franchitti to spin. The No. 50 car came to rest sideways in pit lane, directly in front of the National Guard crew’s pit box, leaving Hildebrand stuck in his pit stall.
“Not anybody’s doing in particular, but it ended up being a long day for us,” Hildebrand admitted. “We got caught up in somebody’s pit lane incident early that put us back, and we continued to work our way back up through the field but we continued to run into problems. It’s disappointing for the National Guard team because we felt like we had a good shot at running up at the front today, and at points in the race we had that going. But we’ll keep working through the season and keep working our way up through the points and get ready for next year.”
After returning to the field, Hildebrand went to work, driving all the way into the Top Five by Lap 138 after an extended battle with Graham Rahal. But immediately after the team made a green flag pit stop on Lap 146 the caution flag came out for the stalled car of Sebastian Saavedra, putting Hildebrand a lap down to the field. While JR would get his lap back on a wave-around, the ill-timed caution moved Panther back to the 15th position on the restart on Lap 152.
As Hildebrand prepared to make another climb through the field on the Lap 184 restart, he was coming off of Turn Four when Helio Castroneves made an abrupt move to the left, which JR had to quickly avoid. After nearly spinning the No. 4 car, Hildebrand gathered the handle, but had to go through pit lane, putting him at the rear of the lead lap and out of sight of the lead pack.
“I was mid-pack and could see going through three that Helio (Castroneves) and somebody else were getting jammed up through the corner and I could tell they weren’t going to be able to go flat through Turn Four and I had a big run on both of them,” JR explains. “Basically right at the exit of the corner I popped out to make it three-wide and steam-roll past them and Helio made a quick move to the left where I was and basically left-rear tire hit my right-front tire and sent me hard to the left. I was lucky I was closer to the pit wall and that I could gather it up quickly enough to gather it back up and drive it through pit lane.”
A yellow for a crash involving Marco Andretti gave the team one last hope, and after pitting for fresh Firestone tires, Hildebrand was able to move up from 18th to 14th in the final eight laps of the race, but was unable to advance any further up the grid.
With the finish, Hildebrand is in tenth position in the IndyCar Series points championship, 10 points away from ninth-place driver Tony Kanaan.
Franchitti, the Ganassi Racing driver, captured his third Indianapolis 500 victory in dramatic fashion, as the Scotsman had to hold off a late dash by Takuma Sato, who crashed in the first turn on the last lap of the race. Scott Dixon finished second and was followed by Team Chevy driver Tony Kanaan, who captured the third position. Panther/DRR driver Oriol Servia bounced back from being a lap down early in the race to capture a dramatic fourth-place finish in the No. 22 Chevrolet.
Panther will travel directly from Indianapolis to the Milwaukee Mile for a test session on Tuesday, before moving directly to Detroit for next weekend’s Grand Prix of Belle Isle, which will be broadcast live next Sunday at 3:30 pm (EST) on ABC, with additional coverage provided by the IMS Radio Network, XM Channel 94 and Sirius Channel 212. Practice, qualifying and race coverage is also available on the new IndyCar Mobile app from Verizon.